Thomas Jefferson’s Danbury Letter

On January 1, 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in reply to a letter they had written congratulating him on being elected to the presidency, complaining about the Connecticut Federalist government’s religious oppression and supporting the need for freedom of conscience . This letter has become famous for its inclusion of the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State,” a phrase now familiar in American society that was much more novel at the time of the letter’s writing. In addition, the letter presented the “wall of separation” as an interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Aside from being reproduced in a Massachusetts publication about a month after its writing, the letter went largely unnoticed until about fifty years later when it was published in new editions of Jefferson’s writings. The letter gained great attention in 1878 when the supreme court case Reynolds v. United States cited the Danbury Baptist Letter as “an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment.” Furthermore, in McCullom v. Board of Education (1947) the US Supreme Court supported its decision to forbid religious instruction in public schools with the claim “in the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state’.” Because this decision made it seem as though Jefferson’s phrase supported completely severing public and religious life, the idea of a “wall of separation” became controversial as more Supreme Court cases referenced it. Recently, the FBI was able to uncover a never before seen original draft of the letter (by restoring inked out words). Over thirty percent of the original draft was changed, and this extensive editing has revealed the vast amount of premeditated thought Jefferson put into crafting the letter. In addition to significantly editing his original draft, Jefferson sent his draft to two of his cabinet members who were also politicians in New England, proving that he realized this address would function as more than merely correspondence with the Danbury Baptists, but also a letter of political importance. Jefferson even wrote Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts that he viewed this letter as a method of “sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets”. In his letter to Lincoln, Jefferson also claimed to have two goals in sending the letter: the first was to assert a “condemnation of the alliance between church and state,” which was most likely a response to the claims by his Federal opponents during the 1800 election that he was an atheist. Secondly, he desired to show “why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.” To Jefferson, proclaiming national days of fasting was an exploitation of religion on behalf of the government. While new information was certainly provided by the recent unearthing of the original draft, it is generally not accepted as sufficient evidence for completely understanding or altering Jefferson’s meaning in writing the Danbury Letter.